BBK Still Going Strong

June 26, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — In its infancy, BBK Studio earned itself a spot within graphic design’s inner circle. Then came a pair of double downturns in the technology and contract furniture industries that very nearly toppled the company in its fifth year.

“You can almost plot our growth with a Dow Jones chart,” said BBK Principal Kevin Budelmann. “We grew in an inflated way early on, and I’m not sure if we were entirely prepared for it.”

“We were in a very good position to capitalize on the trendiness of new media at that stage,” added Principal Yang Kim. “But our traditional background kept us alive when a lot went under.”

The husband-and-wife duo left Zeeland furniture-maker Herman Miller along with co-worker Michael Barile to launch BBK Studio (Barile-Budelmann-Kim) in 1996. (Barile is no longer with BBK.) They fostered a relationship with their former employer to build the foundation for BBK’s early success, with the experience leading to go-to status within the booming contract furniture sector.

Graphic designers by trade, the pair’s Carnegie Mellon education provided the necessary skills to capitalize on new media opportunities in the late 1990s. The Grand Rapids design shop was soon featured in publications such as Print Magazine, Communication Graphics, Communication Arts magazine, Graphis Design and Critique Magazine. It also was honored by a league of journals and groups such as the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the New York Art Directors Club.

By its third birthday, BBK had amassed a striking resume for a West Michigan creative firm, and had a role — through its furniture clients — in creating the dot-com culture.

“It was a fortunate time to start a business,” said Kim. “The economy was steamrolling and we grew much more quickly than we would have guessed.”

“These were the early days of the Web,” added Budelmann. “There were a lot of startups and a lot of companies trying to make some big steps that helped us get some early notoriety.”

In 2001, the contract furniture downturn and the technology sector’s dot-com bust placed BBK squarely in the middle of regional and national economic catastrophes.

Kim credits the firm’s survival to its core communications competency. BBK was founded originally as a strategic source for both new and traditional media. The opportunities of its first half-decade were in new media, as companies flocked to the Web. But even then, BBK kept its course.

“We’re a communications company,” Budelmann said. “The medium is agnostic. If you come to us with a problem, it’s our job to figure out what the end result should be.”

The solution could be a Web site, but it could also be a print brochure, an annual report or Christmas cards. A notable example of non-furniture work includes a catalog for Jaguar automobiles. Depending on the situation, BBK is just as likely to find itself playing the role of marketing firm as that of technology expert, and often is a combination of both.

“Our dialogue is about ‘Who are you trying to appeal to?’ and understanding that audience,” Kim said.

Today with 18 employees and $2 million in annual sales, BBK is as busy as it’s ever been.

“The growth has been healthier,” Budelmann said. “We weren’t inflated by the boom this time. … We’ve made it to the other side.”    

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